A troubling story out of Olympia, Washington highlights one of the real disappointing aspects of American culture and politics today.
In protest of a nativity scene on Capitol grounds, atheists in Olympia, Washington, put up an obnoxious sign celebrating the winter solstice and actively dumping on the religion of every single person who does not believe what they do. As you can read, the sign celebrates the winter solstice (Fine, you want to celebrate a winter holiday, that's OK with The Common Man, though it should probably be pointed out that the solstice was used as a holiday for early religions for countless years before you decided it was a secular day.), while calling religion "myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." Dan Barker, the founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (who put up the sign), despite his sign's cartoonishly ridiculous hyperbole, said "It's not that we are trying to coerce anyone; in a way our sign is a signal of protest. If there can be a Nativity scene saying that we are all going to hell if we don't bow down to Jesus, we should be at the table to share our views." Later, he commented, "When people ask us, 'Why are you hateful? Why are you putting up something critical of people's holidays? -- we respond that we kind of feel that the Christian message is the hate message. On that Nativity scene, there is this threat of internal violence if we don't submit to that master. Hate speech goes both ways." Reports indicate that, amazingly, he said this without a hint of irony. There is a threat of internal violence emenating from every single depiction of a cute little baby boy lying in a manger with his mother, father/Joseph, and ox and sheep. That ox, man, he's an intimidating bastard.
Look, The Common Man has no problem with atheists. He does not understand them, as he thinks atheism is the antithesis of logical thought, but he hopes that atheists would provide him the same respect for choosing to be Catholic as he has for their beliefs (or non-beliefs). But often today, The Common Man has been befuddled by the growing phenomenon of evangelized atheists, who see it as their mission to spread their non-religion as obnoxiously as possible. Christopher Hitchens, of course, is the most visible face of this movement, but Barker and his organization appear to be fighting the same battle, using the same in-your-face, belittling, and, frankly, mean tactics. It's not that religions themselves have not been guilty of the same behavior in the past (and present), just that it is sad to see any group casually and cruelly dismiss the beliefs of another.
The story of the atheist sign, however, continues, as it was stolen from the Legislative Building less than an hour after it was put up. After some time, it was found in a ditch and dropped off at a local radio station. There is no word, of course, about the religious views of the thief (though The Common Man is sure you can guess) who violated the eighth comandment, but this kind of childish display is just as bad as the taunting of the atheists, and only does nothing to soften the debate.
Two weeks ago, Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight.com wrote that he thought Republicans lost the election this year because, in part, they have forgotten how to persuade. The rise of talk radio, according to Silver, has fooled conservatives into believing that stimulation is the same as persuasion, "almost uniquely to radio, most of the audience is not even paying attention to you, because most people listen to radio when they're in the process of doing something else. (If they weren't doing something else, they'd be watching TV). They are driving, mowing the lawn, washing the dishes -- and you have to work really hard to sustain their attention. Hence what [David Foster] Wallace refers to as the importance of "stimulating" the listener." Silver goes on to argue that the McCain campaign focused on stimulation rather than persuasion, mistaking creating a spectacle for converting hearts and minds.
Silver's theory certainly sounds plausible to The Common Man, but The Common Man would humbly suggest that conservatives are not the only group who has forgotten how to persuade. Indeed, Americans seem to have become so enamoured of the shrill, incoherent simultaneous back-and-forth that they hear on radio and see on television that they have begun to accept provoking a response to be the same thing as persuading an audience to agree with their position. Persuasion is a manly art, one that seems to be rapidly wasting away. The Common Man hopes that the recent success by the Obama campaign to win over reluctant voters inspires other groups to attempt dialogue, rather than shallow, showy, but ultimately counter-productive displays like the ones above.